The fear of the Muslim within is very real in Europe, and threatens to torpedo not just the notion of multiculturalism, but the very idea of a European union itself. There is one Europe, symbolized by the Netherlands, Belgium, and now Spain, legalizing same-sex marriages. And another, where a Moroccan extremist kills filmmaker Theo van Gogh over his controversial film about woman and Islam.
In fact, though nobody will explicitly make the link, legalizing same-sex marriage may be less about gay rights and more about codifying an ideal of European values—another brick in the wall of Fortress Europe before it’s too late, before multiculturalism becomes all about tolerating the intolerant.
I was in Spain recently when the parliament legalized same-sex marriage. “It must be hard to be gay in India,” a tall Belgian tourist said, sipping his overpriced cocktail in a packed bar in Barcelona on a muggy summer night. Before I can tell him about a recent gay pride parade in Kolkata, he says, “Is it because there are so many Muslims in India?”
In fact, anti-gay attitudes in India are more closely linked to Victorian-era laws than to the nation’s Muslim minority. Forget the fact that the Spanish Catholic Church was vociferous in its opposition to gay marriage—it is clear that for many Europeans, “non-integrated” Muslims, especially immigrants, are the real “other.” The Catholic Church at least speaks Spanish.
“Many immigrants in the Netherlands are just too conservative,” a flaxen-haired Dutch man complains as we watch hundreds of gay men frolicking in the warm blue waters of the Mediterranean in the resort town of Sitges, just half an hour’s train ride from Barcelona. “They can live in the Netherlands for years and never learn to speak a word of Dutch,” he says.
But “they,” immigrants from countries like Algeria and Pakistan, are growing in numbers. Europeans worry they will eventually turn back the clock on socially progressive measures like same-sex marriage. The Dutchman says he voted “No” on the European constitution. The Euro and immigration were his two big stumbling blocks.
After the London blasts, Tony Blair talked about defending “our values and way of life.” The fear is less that your cricket-playing neighbor assembles bombs in his basement. It’s a much more deep-rooted anxiety that his values are at odds with what Europe cherishes. Whenever the press describes anyone as a devout Muslim, whether alleged bomber Shahzad Tanweer or his victim, 20-year-old bank employee Shahara Akhtar Islam, everyone gets nervous about what that devoutness implies. The Belgian tourist saw no disconnect between his empathy for the Muslim victims of what he called “your Bush and his war on Iraq,” and his dismay at Muslim immigrants and their homophobia and conservatism.
It’s a disconnect I live with everyday. Most of my life I have had to choose again and again where I can be gay and where I can be Indian, as if these worlds exist on planets whose orbits rarely overlap. The vision of the Spanish prime minister rising before Parliament for an impassioned defense of same-sex marriage gives me goose bumps. At the same time, I know ethnically I look more like the South Asians and Arabs who supposedly disown or kill their daughters for dating white men.
I want to protest the Belgian, the Dutchman’s misgivings about their dark-skinned, mosque-going neighbors, but I also know that as a gay man I would not last too long in that mosque. I feel the plight of the “Arab-looking” person targeted for deportation because of the books he might have at home, but am not sure if he would defend me if my sexual orientation landed me in the bad books of the law. I can be a cheerleader for democracy in the Middle East, but might never be able to live with the results of it if a fundamentalist religious party sweeps to power, overturning a corrupt, autocratic, but secular regime.
Is this the grand failure of multiculturalism—that immigrants have held on to the baggage of their home countries with such tenacity that few of the values of their adopted homeland seep in? Or is it the adopted homeland that has been so stingy in its welcome that it never made the immigrant struggling with Dutch or French feel at home, thus radicalizing his children? Are immigrants ever and always the Other, as Tony Blair unwittingly emphasized when he said, “The vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims, here and abroad, are decent and law abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do.”
All I know is that, faced with the inevitable, “Where are you from?” at the bustling Dietrich Café in Barcelona, I hesitated between America and India, unsure where I belonged, suspended between my skin and my sexuality.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is a PNS editor and hosts UpFront, New California Media’s radio show on KALW-FM 91.7 in San Francisco. He recently traveled to Barcelona and London.